Field Marshal The Right Honourable Bernard Law Montgomery, 1st Viscount
Montgomery of Alamein
, KG, GCB, DSO (17 November 1887–24 March 1976) was a
British Army officer, most noted for his involvement in World War II and often
referred to as "Monty".
Early life and World War I service
Montgomery was born in London in 1887. After graduating from St Paul's School
and the Royal Military College Sandhurst, he joined the 1st Battalion, The Royal
Warwickshire Regiment in 1908, first seeing service in India. The First World
War began in August 1914 and he moved to France with his regiment that month. He
saw service during the retreat from Mons and was severely wounded during the
First Battle of Ypres on 13 October 1914 while taking part in an attack against
the German-held village of Meteren. He was awarded the DSO for his actions.
After recovering in early 1915, he was promoted to Brigade Major and returned to
the Western Front in early 1916, taking part in, among others, the Battle of the
Somme. He participated in a number of other engagements throughout the war,
eventually finishing the war, after a number of other appointments, as General
Staff Officer 1, ranked as a colonel, in the 47th (2nd London) Division.
In 1921 Montgomery was appointed as a staff officer to a brigade stationed in
Cork, the most bitterly contested region in the Anglo-Irish War. A cousin of
Montgomery's had been killed by the IRA in 1920 and his family estate was
located in County Donegal, an area also affected by the conflict. He did not try
and exact revenge however and his methods were never as brutal as those of his
contemporary in Cork, Arthur Percival. On his arrival in Cork he urged units of
his brigade that their "behaviour must be beyond reproach" although later, after
futile attempts to locate and destroy IRA units, he stated that it "never
bothered me a bit how many houses were burnt". Despite this he earned the
respect of his enemies and the IRA officer Tom Barry said that he "behaved with
great correctness". Montgomery increasingly came to see the conflict as one that
could not be won, and withdrawal of British forces as the only feasible
solution. In 1923 Montgomery wrote that "the only way way therefore was to give
them (the Irish) some form of self-government and let them squash the rebellion
After the First World War ended, many promising young officers who had gained
higher brevet rank during the war were reduced to their substantive ranks, and
Montgomery returned to the 1st Royal Warwickshires in 1925 as a company
commander, or captain. Montgomery now had to rise up the ranks once more. He
married Elizabeth Carver in 1927 and eventually became Lieutenant-Colonel of the
1st Royal Warwickshires battalion in 1931, seeing service in Palestine, Egypt,
and India. He was promoted to Colonel and became an instructor at the Indian
Army Staff College in Quetta, India. Montgomery did, as was usual, maintain
links with the Royal Warwickshires, taking up the honorary position of
Colonel-of-the-Regiment in 1947. He became commanding officer of the 9th Brigade
in 1937. The year also saw tragedy for him when his wife, Elizabeth Carver, died
after contracting an illness. He was promoted to Major-General the following
year, taking command of the 8th Division in Palestine.
World War II
Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, two days after Hitler
had invaded Poland. At the time, Montgomery had only just recently taken command
of the 3rd Division and he and his division deployed to Belgium as part of the
British Expeditionary Force. The Germans began their invasion of the Low
Countries on 8 May 1940 and the BEF eventually withdrew to Dunkirk where
Operation Dynamo -- the evacuation of the BEF and French forces to Britain --
began on 26 May. Montgomery was placed in command of II Corps during the
evacuation and he was part of over 330,000 British and French troops that were
successfully evacuated from Dunkirk by the time the operation ended on 4 June.
North Africa and Italy
He was promoted Lieutenant-General shortly after his return to Britain, and
after appointments in various capacities in the United Kingdom, Prime Minister
Winston Churchill was persuaded by Alan Brooke to appoint Montgomery commander
of the British Eighth Army in the North African campaign in August 1942 after
Churchill's own preferred candidate, Gott was killed flying back to Cairo.
Montgomery's peremptory assumption of command of Eighth Army was deeply
resented by Auchinleck and his departing staff. Taking command two days earlier
than authorized by Auchinleck, on 13 August 1942, he ordered immediate
reinforcements of the vital heights of Alam Halfa and joined the army and air
headquarters together in a single operating unit.
Montgomery also managed to improve the morale of the 8th Army quickly, but at
the expense of denigrating his predecessor, Auchinleck. Montgomery's dismissive
and occasionally insulting attitude to others often soured opinions about his
abilities and personality. He tended to appeal more to the common soldiers under
his command than to many of the officers who had more direct dealings with him.
In the battle of Alam Halfa, which began on 31 August 1942, Rommel attempted
to penetrate the British front line and encircle the Eighth Army. Forewarned by
Enigma decryption of Rommel's plans, this was defeated in a defensive engagement
and Rommel's attempted breakthrough was halted with very little gain.
Despite Churchill's dismissal of Auchinleck for being insufficiently
aggressive, he allowed Montgomery more time than Auchinleck had asked for to
prepare for the offensive that started with the Battle of El Alamein. Montgomery
was a strong proponent of detailed planning and training of his troops and was
also given more armour than Auchinleck had received.
By 23 October, the largest British artillery barrage of the Second World War
started, Montgomery was confident he would win—but by a ruthless battle of
tactical surprise and then gradual mutual attrition, rather than by manoeuvre.
By 2 November, Rommel was wanting retreat, but Hitler, ordered a 'victory or
death' stand. It was ignored as German units fled, leaving more than 30,000
infantry to surrender.
Montgomery was knighted and promoted to full general. Montgomery's subsequent
slow but steady advance did not impress, but gave the Allies an indication that
the tide of war had really turned in North Africa. Montgomery kept the
initiative, applying superior strength as and when it suited him, forcing Rommel
out of each successive defensive position. When Montgomery encountered fiercer
frontal opposition than he had anticipated at Mareth, he was forced to switch
his major effort into an outflanking inland pincer, backed by low-flying RAF
fighter-bomber support in a demonstration of British blitzkrieg. This was a
harbinger of what ground forces could achieve when working in real tandem with
This campaign demonstrated the battle-winning ingredients of morale,
co-operation of all arms including the air weapon, first-class logistical
back-up and clear-cut orders and is Montgomery's legacy to modern field command.
Although Montgomery managed to recast plans for the invasion of Sicily, which
was conquered in five weeks, inter-allied tensions grew as the American
commanders, Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley, and Clark took umbrage at Montgomery's
attitudes and boastfulness. They resented him, while accepting his skills as a
Montgomery continued to command Eighth Army during the landings on the
mainland of Italy itself. Shortly thereafter he was recalled to the UK to take
part in planning Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy. Montgomery
assumed command of 21st Army Group before the Normandy invasion and commanded
that formation for the rest of the war in Europe.
During the D-Day invasion, and for several months afterwards, Montgomery
commanded all allied ground forces: British, Canadian and American. British
troops became bogged down in the northern sector of his command outside the
French town of Caen. Montgomery's original plan had him taking Caen within days
of the invasion, but it actually took him many weeks to capture this crucial
town. This provoked criticism from some Americans but Montgomery had
deliberately placed his experienced British and Canadian troops up against the
bulk of the armor, including most of the Waffen SS Panzer divisions that were
present on the Western Front. Many of the US troops, in contrast, were straight
off the boat from training in America, having just completed an Atlantic
crossing to be then landed on the Omaha and Utah beaches. Montgomery's
persistence, intentionally or not, did manage to pin down the bulk of the German
armour around Caen, allowing U.S. General George Patton's 3rd American Army to
sweep West then North, capturing many retreating German troops at the 'Falaise
Montgomery's performance during the Normandy landings was criticised by many
who considered his plans unimaginative and too rigid (which is strange
considering the D-Day ground invasion plan was largely of his devising); he was,
however, among the few Allied officers aware of Ultra throughout World War II
(The British did not give Americans the decoding secrets until 1943) and would
have been in possesion of high-level intelligence not known to his critics.
Often he would receive decoded German signals before the intended recipent did.
The German Wehrmacht high command viewed him as a less dangerous threat
as a commander than Patton, considering him habit-ridden and overly cautious. He
was most successful with well planned attacks with overwhelming forces, such as
at El Alamein. Montgomery's defenders put his caution down that fact that he
commanded, for the most part, British and Canadian forces. He was acutely aware
that these forces were limited in number and not easily replaced. He could not
afford to sacrifice them needlessly. His American counterparts, Bradley and
Patton, in contrast, could call upon almost inexhaustible supplies of manpower
from the States.
Removal as Ground Forces Commander
Eventually the preponderance of American troops in the European theatre made
it a political impossibility for the Ground Forces Commander to be British.
Eisenhower himself took over Ground Forces Command while continuing as Supreme
Commander, with Montgomery reverting to command of 21st Army Group. Montgomery
bitterly resented this change, even though it had been agreed before the D-Day
invasion. Winston Churchill had Montgomery promoted to Field Marshal by way of
Montgomery's tempestuous personality and tactlessness throughout the war
nearly led to fissures in the Allied high command. The most notable of these led
to adoption by Eisenhower of his strategy of a single thrust to the Ruhr, which
manifested itself in Operation Market Garden. Operation Market Garden led to the
defeat of the 1st Airborne Division outside Arnhem. When first shown the plans
the British Lieutenant General Frederick Browning said, "I think we might be
going a bridge too far." However, Montgomery insisted that all his battles ran
according to his plans despite evidence to the contrary, even claiming that
Arnhem had been a 90% success.
Montgomery was capable of inspiring great loyalty among his staff and his
troops. These men defended him with great passion even after the war, as the
British historian Richard Holmes discovered when he was critical of Montgomery.
However, he also inspired considerable dislike amongst those, perhaps more
traditional, British officers, who did not like his self promoting attitudes and
boastful manner and found his personality distasteful.
On January 7, 1945 Montgomery held a press conference in which he downplayed
the role of the American generals in the Allied victory at the Battle of the
Bulge. This caused some degree of controversy, and resentment from Americans who
felt that Montgomery held back his forces too long.
Later life and controversy
After the war, Montgomery was created 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein in
1946. His reputation was tarnished over two decades after his death by evidence
of racism with the 1999 revelation of previously secret papers from 1947-1948
when he held the position of Chief of the Imperial General Staff. During that
period he was strictly enjoined to silence about his views, which were contrary
to British policy, and agents were assigned to vet his public appearances for
In 1967, Montgomery campaigned against the legalisation of homosexuality in
the United Kingdom arguing that the Sexual Offences Act 1967 was a
"charter for buggery" and that "this sort of thing may be tolerated by the
French, but we're British - thank God." Ironically, a 2001 book, The Full
Monty ISBN 0140283757 by Montgomery's official biographer and long-time
friend, Nigel Hamilton, alleged that the general was a "repressed homosexual"
who had "quasi love affairs" with numerous young men and boys which fell short
of sexual intimacy.
Montgomery died in 1976 and was interred in the Holy Cross Churchyard,
Binstead, Hampshire. His portrait (by Frank O. Salisbury, 1945) is in the
National Portrait Gallery.
"The U.S. has broken the second rule of war. That is, don't go fighting with
your land army on the mainland of Asia. Rule One is don't march on Moscow. I
developed these two rules myself."
- (spoken of the US approach to the Vietnam War) Quoted in Chalfont's
Montgomery of Alamein.